The Interior Department on Friday issued a detailed proposal for widespread oil and gas drilling off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts in areas that have not had energy exploration for decades.
The proposal, issued in the Bush administration's final days, calls for oil and gas leases to be made available within two to six years "in areas of hydrocarbon potential" from New England to Florida and off the length of California.
Until recently these regions of the Outer Continental Shelf have been declared off limits to drilling by Congress and by presidential executive order. It also outlined lease plans off Alaska including the fish-rich waters of Bristol Bay.
It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama whether to proceed with Interior's revised five-year leasing plan that would cover the years 2010 to 2015. He could scale it back or scrap it entirely. Interior officials said they wanted to give the next administration maximum flexibility to expand offshore drilling.
Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, Obama's choice as interior secretary, has indicated he likely will want to scale back the Bush administration's offshore drilling agenda.
"There are places in the Outer Continental Shelf that are appropriate for drilling. There may be other places that are off limits,"
Salazar said Thursday during his Senate confirmation hearing. "We need to have a thoughtful process as we go forward."
The draft plan was attacked by marine conservation groups and praised by industry.
Jacqueline Savitz of Oceana, a marine protection advocacy group, called the plan an "eleventh hour attempt to sell out our oceans" and urged the Obama administration to reject it.
The proposed leasing agenda is more aggressive than expected even from the Bush administration, said Bill Eichbaum, vice president of marine programs at the World Wildlife Fund. He noted that additional lease sales were scheduled for Alaska's Chukchi Sea and Bristol Bay instead of "rolling back existing leases until there are adequate and comprehensive science-based reviews."
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents major oil companies, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in statements urged Obama to embrace the plan that they said will make available needed new energy resources. Oil and gas companies "have proven they can develop resources in an environmentally safe way," said API president Jack Gerard.
Congressional Democrats have indicated that while they have no intention of returning to the broad drilling bans that covered 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, some areas — especially off California and the Northeast — are likely to again be protected from energy development.
The proposed drilling agenda issued by Interior's Minerals Management Service on Friday assumes no such action.
It schedules three lease sales, in 2012-2015, off California in the Point Arena Basin off the state's northern coast and in the Santa Maria, Santa Barbara/Ventura and Oceanside/Capistrano basins in the south. Access to oil and gas in an ecological preserve off Santa Barbara would be allowed, but only through directional drilling.
The plan calls for five leases, the earliest in 2011, off the Atlantic coast, including one in an area stretching from Maine to New Jersey and another in an area from South Carolina to Florida. Three leases are planned for the mid-Atlantic region including one, previously announced, off Virginia. While the Virginia lease would require a 50-mile protective buffer from shore, the subsequent leases would not.
"The future of these initiatives and projects now rests with the next administration," said Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service. "By starting this new five-year program when we did, we give the new administration the option of actually starting two years earlier than they normally would."
"All options are up to them," he added.